Student denied playing game he loves

MONMOUTH -- When chores and homework are finished -- and sometimes when they're not -- you'll probably find AJ Francis and his father, Andrew, at the volleyball net in their frontyard.

MONMOUTH -- When chores and homework are finished -- and sometimes when they're not -- you'll probably find AJ Francis and his father, Andrew, at the volleyball net in their frontyard.

It might be for "peppering," a warmup of nonstop bumps and sets. Or spikes -- they've draped a safety net across the garage window as a precaution.

"After a couple hundred hits, we still haven't had any breakage," Andrew said with a laugh.

AJ, 12, got his interest in volleyball three years ago, "mostly from being around my dad." Andrew played club ball in college and has been an assistant volleyball coach at Central High.

"I think it's a lot of fun," AJ said.

AJ has some skill and wants to put it to use for the volleyball team at Talmadge Middle School. Because the school has no boys team, the girls team is his only option.

The seventh-grader is fine with that -- he took part in the girls camp this year. He was turned away, however, when it came time to register for the season.

The athletic program rules and bylaws that Talmadge abides by prohibit him from playing on a girls team.

"I want him to play because he's shown an interest in it," Andrew said. "But he doesn't have an opportunity right now to play with kids his own age."

Andrew and his wife, Kerry, approached Talmadge's athletic director, Dale Cutsforth, with the issue. He, in turn, has taken it to officials of the Tri-County League, a sports league comprised of middle schools within Polk, Marion, Benton and other counties.

The organization is governed by a board of middle school athletic directors, including Cutsforth. Nearly all of the group voted in August against allowing Francis to join the girls team. To avoid a conflict of interest, Cutsforth didn't take part in the vote.

"I'm sad and frustrated about it," Cutsforth said. "I don't want to turn any kid down who wants to participate in something ... I don't think that's right."

The league chooses to use operating procedures set forth by the Oregon School Activities Association and National Federation of State High School Associations.

The provision that applies to AJ's case: Under OSAA rules, girls may play on boys teams. But if a girls team includes a boy, that team must play a game schedule against boys instead of girls teams, Cutsforth said.

Talmadge has previously allowed girls to play on its football team and to wrestle, Cutsforth said. Because there are no boys volleyball teams, AJ's playing can't even be a consideration, Cutsforth said.

Cutsforth said using OSAA rules makes sense overall as opposed to other sports guidelines, as it eases the transition for students into high school sports.

As to why this particular provision is structured so a girls team would have to play against a boys team if its ranks include one male, Cutsforth said: "It's a great philosophical discussion on gender equity."

Sarah Mortenson, a Talmadge seventh-grader and volleyball player, said she would be "completely fine" playing alongside Francis and believes her teammates feel the same way.

"I would be glad," she said. "We've played together before and he's really good."

Cutsforth said he didn't understand why more boys don't play volleyball and that he would like to gauge interest in a program.

Funding would still be an issue, though, he said. Because of district budget cuts, Talmadge has relied on Central Youth Sports, a local nonprofit organization, to administer its athletic program during the past two years.

The likelihood of AJ playing on Talmadge's team isn't good, Cutsforth said. Still, Andrew Francis has been invited to speak to Tri-County League leaders this week. And Cutsforth is allowing AJ to practice with the team until a final verdict is rendered.

"I don't feel too good about it," AJ said of being precluded from the team. "I would like to be out there."


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